What a difference a week makes for Iowa basketball. A week ago, we were riding high off Iowa's back-to-back blowout wins over Michigan and Maryland. A week ago, we were looking at the Big Ten standings and the half-game Iowa had to make up on second place and dreaming of a top-4 seed and a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. A week ago, we were ready to chalk up that three-game losing streak at the end of January as the misfortune of drawing Wisconsin two times in three days and playing Purdue without Aaron White for most of the game. A week ago, we were breathing a sigh of relief that the hard part of the schedule was over and the soft part of the schedule was coming up.
Things are a bit different a week later. Now Iowa's coming off back-to-back ugly losses to Minnesota and Northwestern. Iowa's plummeted in the Big Ten standings -- they're now 2.5 games out of 2nd place and 2 games out of 4th place (and the last double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament), although it's effectively 3 games out of 4th place since the team currently in 4th place (Michigan State) owns a head-to-head tiebreaker over Iowa. Not to mention that Iowa would need to climb past four teams to get to 4th place now. And those losses to Wisconsin and Purdue... well, they clearly weren't just down to playing Wisconsin twice and playing Purdue sans Aaron White. And a week later the so-called soft part of the schedule has revealed some previously hidden sharp edges.
That said, how panicked should we really be right now? To be sure, Iowa's unquestionably in a worse place than they were a week ago -- Iowa was comfortably in the field of 68 after those impressive wins over Michigan and Maryland. Their position is much less comfortable now. One of the main selling points of Iowa's NCAA Tournament resume was the fact that they hadn't suffered any bad losses. Getting torched by Iowa State and UNI may have been frustrating from a personal standpoint, but they certainly aren't hurting Iowa from a basketball standpoint. Likewise, getting shellacked twice by Wisconsin rankles, but the Badgers are #5 for a reason -- they're beating pretty much everybody, so losing to them is hardly a black mark on your resume. The losses to Syracuse, Texas, and Purdue hurt more, but they're still leagues away from being bad losses (if anything, the Texas and Purdue losses hurt Iowa because they're losses to fellow bubble teams, giving the Longhorns and Boilermakers one advantage on the Hawkeyes in any comparisons between the teams). Even the Minnesota loss wasn't truly a bad loss, at least using the definition wielded by the bracketologists. The Northwestern loss, though... yeah, that was a bad loss. There's no other way to look at it.
Yet despite that loss -- and despite the fact that it dropped Iowa to 15-10 overall and 6-6 in the Big Ten -- Iowa doesn't find themselves on the outside looking in on the most recent mock brackets or when you see what the experts have to say. Iowa's week from hell dropped them all the way to... a #9 seed in Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket. Lunardi's bracket math ($) still has Iowa fairly comfortably within his S-curve and he had this to say about the Hawkeyes yesterday:
ESPN's Jeff Goodman also listed Iowa among the 7 teams he expected to make the NCAA Tournament ($). Jerry Palm dropped them down to a #10 seed in his most recent mock bracket. Iowa's on 85 of 89 brackets and have an average seed 9.42 in the most recent iteration of The Bracket Project's Bracket Matrix. Palm elaborated on his view of the Hawkeyes' NCAA Tournament chances in an article with BTN's Tom Dienhart:
PALM ON THE HAWKEYES: What's the matter with these guys? A week ago, they are 15-8 and a borderline Top 25 team. They have some nice stuff on their resume. They have done some good things. They have a relatively soft schedule left, but they have to take care of business. Tourney teams beat Minnesota at home and find a way to win at Northwestern. Iowa has to start doing that. Can they afford another loss down the stretch? Maybe. Winning at North Carolina and at Ohio State can cover up a lot of ills. But this is a team that really doesn't want to sink much further. They went from fairly solid in the tourney to on the bubble in a week.
And that's really the crux of the issue: consistency. Iowa's still in the NCAA Tournament field because they have done good things this year -- those wins over North Carolina, Ohio State (x2), and Maryland look very good, and the road wins over Minnesota and Michigan also look pretty good. But if they had been able to play like they did in those games more often, they wouldn't find themselves in this predicament. They likely wouldn't have 10 losses and they wouldn't have that resume-stinging loss to Northwestern. If Iowa plays like we know they're capable of playing -- the way we've seen them play in wins over Ohio State, Maryland, Minnesota, etc. -- then they can (and will) absolutely be an NCAA Tournament team. But when they play like they have against Northwestern -- or Minnesota or Purdue -- then they look like anything but an NCAA Tournament team.
I get why Iowa fans are nervous, too, because we've seen this movie before -- just a year ago an Iowa team with some nice wins in December and January imploded in February and sneaked into the NCAA Tournament by the skin of their teeth. And, lo and behold, it's February again -- almost the exact same part of February as last year's meltdown, in fact (Wednesday, February 18 will the one-year anniversary of the postponed game against Indiana, when the Assembly Hall ceiling fell in and the bottom began to fall out of the Iowa basketball season) -- and Iowa's coughing up ugly losses to teams they should beat. This year's team doesn't have as much cushion as last year's team did; they ate too many losses in the non-conference slate and early in the Big Ten season. This year's team can't survive the calamitous losing skid that last year's team did. But the schedule is still favorable, with plenty of games that Iowa can win and should win. But the only way they will win them is if they can get back to playing the way they did when they opened up 4-1 in Big Ten play or a week ago when they were smashing Michigan and Maryland. Can they play like that again? We're about to find out.